You would think that opening a rice-paper screen is a no-brainer: Just roll it across. My instructions are very specific: where to place the left hand, then right, how many inches apart, and how much to lean forward while doing it. It all has to do with grace and beauty. No culture has studied it more than the Japanese.
The four eagles watch me with an unrelenting gaze and I measure and move the screen. Satisfied, they teach me how to pour tea. It is like holding a dance mudra. Two fingers on the top of the teapot, the others splayed out straight, and pour. The water from the teapot arches out. “Look up, look up,” says Midori-san. “Flutter your eyelashes. Never hold the gaze of a man.”
An elegant kimono-clad lady enters to begin another lesson. The idea is to make your guests feel comfortable, she says in broken English. Some instructions are easy and make sense. Geishas never wade through the middle of the room in case the conversation flow is broken. They walk near the walls. Nothing is loud or raucous. Laughter becomes giggles. “Cover your mouth with the back of your hand,” she says. “Fingers together.” She adjusts my arm, nudges my back so I kneel straighter and pushes my shoulder down. “Pay attention to posture,” she says.
My lessons continue for days. By the end, I am awed by these women. Some of their behaviour will outrage feminists but if you suspend that judgement, the grace they exhibit is inspiring. A geisha sees details. Her aesthetic is trained over years to become what I call “just so”. You know those people who walk into a room and adjust a flower or cushion with one simple motion and then, suddenly, everything looks right; everything looks just so. They are the ones who could be geishas.
Ø Travel companies in Japan can connect you with the geisha world in Kyoto. I used Michi Travel, but there are others (a geisha experience with Michi for a week to 10 days can be tailored for $10,000, or around Rs.6.2 lakh, all inclusive. Immersing yourself in a culture through icons is a terrific way of seeing the world differently—whether it is learning t’ai chi in China or cooking pasta in Italy; or becoming a flâneur in Paris; or creating scents in Morocco. The world has many pleasures. Take a dip into it.
Shoba Narayan writes the weekly column The Good Life.